Rooted firmly to the bottom of Nations League Group B1, this was Northern Ireland’s opportunity to add to the single point gained in the away draw in Bucharest. Last month’s 5-1 home defeat was unlikely to be repeated and ten changes in personnel from Sunday’s home defeat to Austria demonstrated Baraclough’s willingness to test the depth of limited options. Bailey Peacock-Farrell aggravated a hip injury during the warm-up, giving Trevor Carson a surprise opportunity for his 6th senior cap in goal.
The 3-5-2 starting line-up also saw call-ups for Smith, Ballard, Flanagan, Ferguson, Thompson and Saville with Magennis and Washington looking to halt our miserable run in this dreaded tournament.
All eyes were on Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland, scoring twice in Belfast in our 5-1 hammering and a further three against Romania in Oslo on Sunday. So, it was down to captain Jonny Evans, the only starter retained from the Austria game, alongside Daniel Ballard and Tom Flanagan to stifle any extension to Haaland’s tally. Their resolve was tested almost immediately, with Haaland shooting on the turn to see Carson save superbly and Flanagan clear off the line.
Northern Ireland have had issues settling into games during Baraclough’s short tenure and this was another shaky start. However, it was quickly evident the desire was there with Conor Washington forcing a decent save from ‘keeper Hansen and Magennis not making better of a further opportunity early in the first half.
Real Madrid’s Martin Ødegaard was proving to be a handful but we held our resolve and looked threatening in attack, providing both Magennis and Washington with opportunities. Our midfield, made-up entirely of EFL Championship players, were resolute against this impressive Norway line-up. Ballard and Flanagan did an excellent job closing down Haaland with Smith and Ferguson successfully thwarting Ødegaard and Elyounoussi on the flanks.
We deservedly made it to half-time with a clean sheet, especially following a nervous moment prior to the whistle when Flanagan lost his man, giving Haaland a free header that he should have put past Carson.
The second half saw Jonny Evans replaced by Conor McLoughlin, handing the captain’s armband to his brother Corry. Despite a run of crap results, our Nations League fixtures have thrown up a few historical moments, and this was one of them. Northern Ireland started the second half focused, maintaining their shape well but creating little by way of concrete chances. Just before the hour Trevor Carson was tested again, impressively denying Josh King the opportunity to give the home side the advantage.
With half an hour remaining, Baraclough replaced Smith with Stuart Dallas and McNair for ‘Boro team-mate Saville. If we were going to get anything out of the game, now was the time to do it. Alas, Norway’s infamous Lars Lagerbäck had similar intentions, taking off King and Normaan for Alexander Sørloth and Fredrik Midtsjø.
Baraclough may now be doubting this decision. The last thing he needed was a dose of good fortune for the home side but that’s exactly what they got. A through pass from Stefan Strandberg to Haaland was intercepted by Ballard and put out for a corner. The resulting ball in from Ødegaard narrowly missed the stretching Ballard, hitting off the arm of Stuart Dallas and into the corner of the net. The unfortunate pattern of falling behind will no doubt haunt Baraclough, a pattern he’s sadly getting used to. But this was cruel.
We had still plenty of attacking options left on the bench and extra pace was found with Gavin Whyte swapped for Washington with 15 minutes remaining. Minutes later, a Dallas cross saw Magennis set up a great opportunity for Corry Evans who sadly messed it up completely. Steven Davis came on for his 122nd appearance for the last 5 minutes in exchange for Thompson as a last gasp attempt to salvage something from the game.
Alas it wasn’t to be. This was a bit of an experimental squad and Ian Baraclough must take encouragement from a spirited performance. We had four shots on target, which was three better than on Sunday and were successful in halting Erling Haaland’s recent goal orgy. However, it’s not quite so encouraging to learn that, realistically, only victory against Romania next month will save us from relegation to League C.
All eyes are on next month’s play-off final with Slovakia. This is a game Baraclough knows we cannot take for granted, despite a poor recent run by the Slovaks. Northern Ireland are winless in our last nine competitive games, our total tally a paltry three points. Coincidentally, the last Northern Ireland own goal was Chris Brunt in 2017, also away to Norway.
Norway 1 Northern Ireland 0
Dallas (og 67)
Hansen, Elabdellaoui, Strandberg, Ajer, Meling, Ødegaard (Linnes), Berge, Normaan (Midtsjø), Elyounoussi, King (Sørloth), Haaland (Henriksen)
Subs not used: Rosted, Thorsby, Svensson, Hauge, Østigård, Johansen, Rossbach, Jarstein
Carson, Smith (Dallas), Ballard, J. Evans (McLaughlin), Flanagan, Ferguson, Thompson (Davis), C. Evans, Saville (McNair), Magennis, Washington (Whyte)
Subs not used: McGinn, Cooper, McGovern, Boyce, Lafferty, McCann